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On the evening of August 24, 1955, at Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market, Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant. It was a history bending whistle. According to the sign that has stood in front Bryant’s Grocery since 2011, the whistle jump-started the American Civil Rights Movement.
Till arrived at Bryant’s Grocery around 7:30 pm along with several cousins and friends. The primary attraction was the checkers game on the front porch. With his companions thus engaged, Till followed his cousin Wheeler Parker into the store.
When Wheeler came out of the store, Simeon Wright went in. Twelve years old, Wright grew up in the Mississippi Delta, knew the rules of the Jim Crow South, and didn't want to leave his Chicago cousin alone with white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant.
When Simeon entered the store, he saw nothing inappropriate. Contrary to the story later told in court by Carolyn Bryant, Till did not grab her or put his arms around her. He did not proposition her. He did not ask her for a date or call her "baby." He simply paid for his items and left the store.
Shortly after the cousins left the store, Carolyn Bryant came out too, heading for her car. That is when it happened.
Emmett whistled at Carolyn Bryant. As Simeon Wright remembers it, "It was a loud wolf whistle, a big-city 'whee wheeeee.'"
Although historians have debated whether or not Till actually whistled, those who witnessed the event have always insisted that he did. Critically, Till's cousins Simeon Wright and Wheeler Parker (both eyewittnesses) insist that Till whistled.
The whistle violated the norms of the Jim Crow South, and Wright and Parker both knew it. It had broken an "unwritten law" that governed the interactions of black men and white women. Worried, they hurried Till away from the store as fast as possible.
The unwritten laws of the Jim Crow South were enforced through lynch mobs and vigilante violence. In this case, Carolyn’s husband Roy, his half-brother J. W. Milam, and an array of accomplices kidnapped Till, tortured him, shot him, attached his body to a cotton-gin fan with a length of barbed wire, and dropped his body in a river.
It is entirely fitting that, in 2020, when the US House of Representastives finally passed a federal antilynching bill, it was named the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
For nothing more than a whistle, Till experienced the full fury of the Southern lynch mob. His innocence was answered by unimaginable violence. Indeed, the violence was so intense that it suggests a desperate effort to uphold the fading norms of white supremacy.
The effort did not work. Virtually every historian agrees that the Till murder jump-started the civil rights movement.
While the brutal murder may have galvanized the movement, the grocery store has been allowed to fall into ruin. After the acquittal, the black sharecroppers that once kept Bryant’s Grocery in business refused their patronage, and the store was put up for sale less than a month after the trial. For the next three decades, the building was maintained as a country grocery by different owners—first as Wolfe’s and then as Young’s Grocery and Market.
Since the early 1980s, the site of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market has been owned by the Tribble family. Ray Tribble was a juror in the 1955 Till trial, and his children now own the site. In 2011, the Tribble family led the charge to renovate the adjacent gas station, Ben Roy’s Service Station. Although Ben Roy’s has no civil rights history, the family was able to leverage its proximity to Bryant’s Grocery to obtain money set aside for civil rights restoration. Unfortunately, the restored Ben Roy’s makes no mention of Till, the civil rights movement, or Bryant’s Grocery.
Several parties have offered to buy the property from the Tribbles in the interest of restoring it as a memory site. As of 2019, the Tribbles have refused to sell the property for less than $4 million. While the world sees Bryant’s Grocery as the origin of the civil rights movement, the Tribbles apparently see it as potentially valuable commercial property.
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